Research assignment ideas for first-year writing courses

Faculty, librarians, and students themselves have found that students learn best about library resources when the instruction is linked to a specific, focused research assignment. Effective research assignments are often “low stakes”; that is, they engage students in the process of finding and evaluating information without the pressure or expectations of a final term paper.The assignments listed below are offered as alternatives to the traditional research paper, but they are not exclusive of longer projects. They can be used for various writing outcomes, such as a short paper, oral report, group presentation, website, multimedia project, etc. A series of low-stakes assignments, when introduced over the course of a term, can build to a final research paper or longer assignment. As well, these assignments could be modified for writing course at any level.For more information about adapting these assignments in a course, please contact Laura Braunstein, or your subject librarian.

  • Assign an annotated and evaluative bibliography as an early step in the research process. Ask them to discuss the quality of each item in relationship to academic research on the topic, and have them indicate how they would use the item in their discussion. Also have them include items that they would not use in their papers, and explain why.
    Click here for a full description of this assignment as it was used in first-year seminar.
  • Give students a range of publications on a similar topic: a newspaper article, a popular magazine article, a scholarly journal article, a monograph, an online magazine, and a blog or website. Have them compare the materials in terms of audience, focus, purpose, and context. Would the materials be appropriate for a research paper in your field or discipline? Why or why not?
  • Hand out an article from the popular press, or a chapter from a popular book, that reports on original research. Ask students to find the scholarly publications on which the article was based and discuss the relationship between the popular article and the research as it was originally published.
  • Assign a poster presentation, webpage, or PowerPoint based on students’ research (as individuals or groups). How do you construct and present a visual argument for a peer audience?
  • Have students construct a timeline, map, or chart that represents the impact of a landmark scholarly article or book. Have them discuss how the scholarship has changed and why.
  • To each student or group, assign a prominent scholar in your discipline. Have students research that person’s career and ideas by finding biographical resources, exploring the scholar’s relationship to the field, and tracing the influence of the scholar’s research.
  • Provide a list of recent articles from a journal in your discipline. Have students choose an article, and track down and annotate the references in the article’s bibliography to understand how the author responds to current arguments in the field.
  • Assign a review article from a few years ago. Ask the students to update it with an annotated bibliography of recent publications on the topic.
  • Have students work in groups (or the class as a group) to research and define basic terms and concepts, and collaboratively construct a course glossary using the Wiki software embedded in Blackboard.
  • Ask students to keep a research log that lists library resources used (databases, reference books, librarians, tutors, etc.), search terms and strategies, promising paths as well as dead ends and wrong turns. Review the research log several times over the course of the term, and require it to be submitted with the final project.

Some of these ideas have been partially adapted from “Assignment Ideas that Develop Information Literacy Skills.” Pace University Library. <> Accessed September 26, 2006.